Chowchilla Kidnapping Survivors Reunite on Bus Hijacked in 1976 to Condemn Release of Their Abductors
In the biggest mass abduction in U.S. history, three masked men with guns hijacked a Dairyland Elementary school bus on July 16, 1976. The bus, driven by Ed Ray, had 26 children on board. The men would later bury those onboard alive.
The victims of the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping, where three armed men abducted a school bus full of terrified children and their driver and buried them alive, are outraged their assailants are now free from prison.
In the biggest mass abduction in U.S. history, three masked men with guns, later identified as James Schoenfeld, Richard Schoenfeld and Frederick Newhall Woods IV, hijacked a Dairyland Elementary school bus in the evening of July 16, 1976. The bus, driven by Ed Ray, had 26 children on board.
“I was right about here,” Laura Yazzi Fanning tells Inside Edition, stepping onto the school bus on which she and her schoolmates were held hostage when she was only a 5-year-old kindergartener. “So here is where I was sitting at the time when they came up on the bus with the guns.”
Returning to the bus, which now sits in a museum outside of Chowchilla, California, was an act of courage for Fanning, who 46 years later feels the pain of experiencing such an ordeal just as forcefully as she did that fateful day.
“Most definitely yes,” she says of part of her life being stolen. “Because you are always looking behind your shoulder, always afraid.”
The kidnappers held the children and their driver on the bus at gun point as they drove for 11 hours in the sweltering heat. The victims were not allowed any bathroom breaks or water. At about 3:30 a.m., they finally arrived at a quarry nearly 100 miles away in Livermore, California. There, the captors put the children and their bus driver into a moving van and buried them alive.
“I wasn’t moving off the bus when they were telling everybody to get off,” Darla Neal, who was 10 at the time, tells Inside Edition. “One of them got tired of it and came up and said get up with the gun to my head.”
After 16 hours, the victims managed to escape through a hole in the roof of the van. The kidnappers—the quarry owner’s son and his two friends, who were all from wealthy families but motivated by the desire for a large ransom—were sentenced to life in prison, but now all three have been paroled.
Frederick Woods, the last of the kidnappers, was released in August, much to the outrage of the victims.
Classmate Jodi Heffington-Medrano died last year. Her son Matthew says she did everything she could to keep her assailants in prison.
“She would take it personally,” he says of their release, noting that his mother often went to their parole hearings to serve as a reminder of the damage they caused.
“I think that was a huge mistake,” Lynda Carrejo Labendeira says of their release. “They were initially sentenced to life without parole and that one should have stuck.”
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